Holy Communion 8th March 2020
Rhythms and Certainties
John 3. 1 - 17
The season of Lent is a good time to examine the rhythms by which we live our lives and the beliefs we take for granted. For some that will mean deepening our normal spiritual rhythm, perhaps by focussing on more frequent times of prayer. For others it might mean creating a new rhythm, making a commitment to pray or read the bible regularly rather than intermittently. It could be studying something to think about our beliefs, ot to go to a different service to learn something new. Classically Lent can mean giving something up – battling with the absence of that which has become familiar, and even necessary to us, to see whether that rhythm, that dependency, should actually define who we are. As with rhythms so with beliefs. Thinking about them afresh might cause us to ask wither they are as fixed as we think.
I’ve said before here that I do love a quiz, and I dislike losing. There’s a skill in asking quiz questions, and I hope I’m up to it when the Friends of the Music have theirs in June. We’re already planning it. For a Quiz question there has to be a right answer, which is beyond dispute. A small claim to fame is that I showed the quiz “Pointless” that they were wrong about one of the pointless answers, and Richard Osman acknowledged it publicly. Sometimes, in pubs and PTAs these things end up in court, and with violence. Giving the answer to question 17 is no time to be engaged in a philosophical debate about the nature of truth, even if it only relates to the exact number of Beatles’ number one hits. So certainty is all.
Occasionally people treat matters of belief and practice like a quiz. The complexities of the world, the differing views and experiences and lifestyles of human beings, and the passions and depth of ethical and moral debate so overwhelm us that it would be wonderful to have an incontrovertible and clear solution. There are some things we’d just love to be certain about and want everyone else to be certain of too. Women bishops. Equal marriage. Sanctity of life, at its beginning and end. What we wear and what we sit on in church. That awful Peace thing. The trouble is that there are competing certainties here, and we have few mechanisms for resolving them well, though General Synod does have a go. It’s not just us: the press is full of this. We take our place in a world which likes to have things cut and dried, and it’s not always as easy as that.
It is very instructive that Nicodemus, a person of influence in the Jewish world, comes to Jesus by night. He doesn’t know what to do, but knows that he cannot do nothing. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and thrown out the money changers from the Temple. One commentator likens this to a village dweller ejecting the journalists from the Houses of Parliament and the tourists from Westminster Abbey. But far from being a rabble-rouser, Jesus has been recognised, at least by Nicodemus, as a person of power and depth. What Jesus does signifies something, and Nicodemus wants to know what.
Nicodemus has lived a life of extreme regulation, of religious observance, of attendance to the requirements of the law, inhabiting an ordered universe with all in its place. But he is no spiritual automaton. He knows that observing these patterns and committing himself to prayer and study in this way is for something. It is just that, in recognising that Jesus is a manifestation of the presence of God, he can’t see how Jesus fits into his pattern, how Jesus can be the fulfilment of the law. He just doesn’t compute. You have challenged my rhythms and my certainties, says Nicodemus. Please tell me what I need to know.
Jesus actually makes Nicodemus even more confused, by challenging the need for certainty and compartmentalisation. Nicodemus calls Jesus a teacher, inviting Jesus to bring a new interpretation of the ancient things of God, as any good Rabbi would. Jesus tells him to start his whole life again, from being born. I occasionally like to wonder what Nicodemus’s face looked like at this point. Perhaps it was a good job it was at night. The encounter carries on in this vein: Nicodemus is an intelligent seeker after truth, and in those terms Jesus talks nonsense. ‘How can someone be born again?’ is a reasonable question, but Jesus eventually gets through to Nicodemus that this is not about existing patterns of thought, but about finding a whole new way of living.
Nicodemus is a person of real integrity, looking for truth, for certainty, for a key which will help him interpret the crucial questions of his day. He is honestly looking, perhaps prepared for his rhythms and certainties to be changed, but not expecting to be shaken to the very core of his being. What he encounters is not a series of truths, a way of rearranging his compartments within a fixed and existing shape. The truth with which he is presented is living and real and standing before him. The truth is an encounter, not a series of rules – and to follow the truth is literally to live a new life – to put to death everything which has gone before, be born again, and reshape all that he was into something completely new. No one can simply “evolve upwards into the Kingdom of God” says one commentator. The requirement of rebirth is for everyone.
By “everyone”, that means you. And me. This is one of the passages given to people when they begin New Testament Greek, because the pronouns are vital. “You must be born again” is not singular, to Nicodemus, but plural, to everyone. This is a challenge to our rhythms and certainties. In Lent, where our familiar patterns are put under the spotlight, this encounter is a sobering one. Far from being encouraged to make what we are just a little better, a little slimmer, a little more devout, Jesus invites us to be converted, to die and to be reborn. In this challenge is the opportunity to examine our desire for answers, and to question whether our certainties will really satisfy us. The Lent disciplines are good for us, of course. But only in that they point to true sacrifice, to complete dependence, to being children of God.
When all is said and done what is offered to Nicodemus, what is offered to us, is that our lives will be renewed and reformed though the God’s giving of Jesus completely and utterly for us – the cross is prefigured here in the lifting up of the serpent so that the people of Israel would be healed. Our healing, our forgiveness, our acceptance, our place in the kingdom of heaven will depend, in the end, solely on our faith and belief in Christ. I wonder if Lent might be a chance to give up our security in false certainties, in order to find our faith in that which will sustain for eternal life, even friendship with God, who so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life. Amen.
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